Tag Archives: Recovery

Eating is (literally) stressful

abundance agriculture bananas batch

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One observation from my Garmin watch is that my stress score goes up after meals. No matter what I eat, how healthy the food I’m eating, my stress levels go up after the meal and stay elevated for at least a couple hours or longer, depending of course on activity and whatever else I’m doing. This is even true if I eat before bed: My stress levels can remain high for up to 2 hours after I drift off to sleep, following a relatively late meal.

My body only shows as resting (meaning a low stress score) in the morning if I have yet to eat breakfast. Despite any hunger pangs, it’s less stressful for me (according to heart rate variability) to be hungry than it is for me to digest a meal after eating. I find I record more restful periods when I intermittent-fast, aka skip breakfast and eat my first meal in the afternoon. Even with the added stimulus of coffee, my stress levels remain in a low resting state.

Garmin’s stress score is a function of heart rate variability, which can indicate activation or rest of your body’s sympathetic nervous system, which activates the body for activity. When the sympathetic nervous system is regularly activated, that indicates your body is under stress. A heart rate that does not vary much is indicative of the sympathetic nervous system being activated.

What does this have to do with eating? The sympathetic nervous system is a component of the autonomic nervous system, which passively operates our organs and hormonal glands. When you eat food, the autonomic/sympathetic nervous system begins diverting blood from other organs to the stomach and other relevant digestive organs to digest your ingested food. This activation of your sympathetic nervous system will continue until your food has been suitably digested and absorbed.

Even if you are laying down and doing absolutely nothing, your sympathetic nervous system during digestion is at work and therefore your heart rate variability at rest is likely small enough to indicate a level of stress to your Garmin. That doesn’t seem fair, but welcome to human biology.

If you live a relatively low-stress existence, eat only 2-3 meals a day, and you’re in good health, this is likely not a big deal. Your heart rate will eventually return to normal variability in a couple hours, and your resting time will read to your tracker as being at rest.

Of course, the vast majority of humanity doesn’t fall into the very thin demographic I just outlined. Most of us deal with some substantial degree of regular stress. Many of us have different meal habits, and many snack or eat enough meals a day that their bodies are digesting food not just throughout the entire day but even after going to sleep. And, of course, most people are not in optimal health.

This never minds people who endurance train, and are already subjecting their bodies to substantial stress through their training. The irony is that, depending on their eating habits, their fueling after workouts may in fact be contributing to their overall (already high) stress levels.

Science incidentally hasn’t laid a hand on this subject in over a decade, so we don’t have a ton of data on why this needs to be a stress reaction let alone if we can change the body’s sympathetic nervous reaction to eating food. So we have to accept that this is reality and work within that.

This incidentally is an underlying reason why intermittent fasting and the old “eat dinner like a pauper” rule* works so well. Fasting by skipping breakfast leads to generally lower stress levels, which improves overall hormonal function. Eating light limits the stress affect on your sleep time, which can improve the quality of that sleep.

Of course, this should not be taken as license to starve yourself and not eat at all. At some points during the day you do need to eventually take in quality nutrition and “take the sack” (so to speak) on the resulting sympathetic stress, because your body needs that nutrition.

This merely points out how the timing of that nutrition can affect your overall sympathetic stress, which in turn can affect your overall health.

Though this was never an intent of the rule, this is one benefit to making sure to eat quality protein/carbs as soon after a hard workout as possible, e.g. the 30 minute and 2 hour windows. Your body undergoes a similar sympathetic stress response after a workout, though the stress ripple effect can last longer than your meals (often, for example, a long run leaves you in a high stress state for the entire rest of the day, even if you spend all day laying down).

Eating as soon as possible and triggering that sympathetic nervous reaction can effectively piggy-back off the other sympathetic nervous reaction recovering from the workout itself. Eating much later could effectively re-start the sympathetic stress reaction, whereas eating right after one has began saves you the trouble of an extra stress reaction, or an extended period of elevated sympathetic stress. You can get back to a normal resting state more quickly, and spend more time in that low-stress rested state than if you had eaten later and had two separate stress-creating episodes for your sympathetic nervous system.

This lends credence to the following ideas:

  • Unless you work out in the morning, or you have health-related reasons not to do so, it’s probably best to intermittent fast by skipping breakfast, nothing but coffee and water.
  • Probably only eat breakfast if doing a morning workout, and probably following that workout.
  • It’s important to consume nutrition within 30 minutes of finishing tougher workouts, and to eat a meal within two hours of finishing those workouts.
  • Regardless of the size of dinner, you want to buffer a couple of hours between the end of dinner and bedtime, to allow digestion and its stress reaction to finish as early in the sleep cycle as possible.
  • Avoid snacking, as it restarts the sympathetic nervous stress reaction. Eat full meals and only full meals, 2-4 times a day.
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The Overload Principle: The training value of runners training tired

Human nature leads us to take it easy when we’re sore or tired. Obviously, we don’t feel good, so our nature tells us to rest until we feel better.

Many training plans for runners will ask you to run a high volume of miles, even though often times you are tired from the prior workouts. Many novice runners will make the mistake of skipping or curtailing the easier workouts because they are tired. They don’t realize their being tired is part of the training stimulus for those workouts!

In fitness training we have a concept called the Overload Principle. The principle is that your training stimulus has got to exceed your current capabilities to elicit optimal adaptions from that training.

For a beginning runner who doesn’t run much, the simple act of running in itself kicks in the overload principle. A beginner’s current capability is they aren’t yet comfortable running a lot. So running in itself already exceeds their current capabilities. A simple run will for them elicit those optimal adaptions.

Separately, consider strength training through weight lifting with heavy, challenging weights. Done with a suitable intensity (i.e. sufficient weight, capable but challenging form), lifting weights can exceed anyone’s current capabilities as long as the weight and/or exercise itself is more challenging that the trainee is generally used to. Even if a trainee gets comfortable with a given weight/exercise, adding weight or progressing the exercise into a more challenging form can once again exceed the trainee’s capabilities and elicit those optimal adaptions.

However, if the trainee were to maintain the current intensity as they got comfortable with it, the exercise while still beneficial would produce lesser adaptions and results. This is often why people hit a plateau when training.

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Valuable Training Recovery Habits

woman in gray crew neck shirt running on brown soil during daytime

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I don’t get a lot of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) during training. Incidentally, I had some a couple days ago after an interval workout, though I also hadn’t been training that much and I’m ramping back up to a normal training volume.

I’ve been able to train 7-10 hours per week over the years despite a full time job in Chicago and other commitments. A lot of that is creatively integrating training into my commute by running to train stations or all the way home from work, sure.

But those daily 4-7 mile runs, especially with some true speedwork sessions during the week and long runs during the weekend, not to mention all the work and walking and errands I did when I wasn’t running… could have burned me out quickly had I not developed effective recovery habits to follow between work and all those runs.

Even if you aren’t running 6 miles in your work clothes right after getting off work, many of the habits that have helped me can help you as well. In fact, the busier you are and the more you train, the more important it becomes that you adopt as many of these habits as you can:

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Despite Not Running For A Week, I Might Have Improved My Running Fitness

After taking a week off from running due to a bum hamstring, I reeled off three days of short runs in a row, none over 3 miles. Felt fine.

Two days after that last run, I ran over 5 miles home from work, despite not having run farther than 3.5 miles in over a month. Felt fine.

How, despite not running double digit miles in a week since mid-June, despite losing an entire week after a month of minimal running… was I able to reel off 12 miles in 5 days?

Okay, I left out all the cross training I did in the gym. Sure, I also ate well and got good rest. But, along with the 5 hours of cross training I did during the week “off” from running, I’ve been cross training quite a bit outside of any running. This is in large part because I’m about to move cross country, and with no goal race on the horizon I want to take it a bit easier while focusing my energy on cleaning up and packing.

At the same time, I’ve been ramping up my weekly cross training akin to a runner ramping up their mileage ahead of a goal race. Of course, the cross training is not as physically intense as regular running. And that’s a key reason I’ve been able to do so much of it in the interim.

The week after my last double digit mile week, I logged 2 hours of non-running cross training. The week after that, 2.5 hours. The week after that, 3.8 hours. And sure, I was not feeling great the week I got hurt, so I only logged 2 hours. But, with no ability to run, I logged extra time cross training and got 5 hours that week.

In this past week, I logged 5.8 hours of cross training in addition to 16.2 total miles, close to 8 hours total. Factoring in the heart rate training and calorie burn of the cross training, I finished last week trained to a level equivalent to about 24 miles of running a week.

My aerobic fitness development didn’t stall as my mileage dropped to lows unseen since before I began seriously running. I still logged easy/moderate efforts on the ARC Trainer, and easy sessions on the spin bike. Plus, this ignores all the day to day walking I have to do while living in Chicago (for now).

And because of this it’s certainly possible that, despite not running for a full week, my running fitness may have improved. Sure, a week of relative rest from running helps too. But I not only didn’t lose aerobic endurance… I might have gained some.

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Walking as a habit for sneaky aerobic exercise and weight loss

Starting shortly after my Vancouver Marathon trip, I began leaving for work earlier in the mornings to walk 5K to work instead of taking the bus.

I already run-commute in part to save money on bus fare (it’s long since been cheaper to pay per use than to get a monthly pass since I don’t ride as much), not to mention get my training in during the week.

Admittedly, part of my motivation for walking to work in the morning was to further save on the cost of bus fare. If using the bus once per work day was cheaper, then not using it at all is even cheaper.

And of course living 5K from work makes walking to work feasible. If I lived farther away (my last job was 9 miles from home), running that commute would be more difficult, and walking that commute would be unworkable. I would have a need to take transit.

All that said, there’s a variety of health benefits to taking long walks to work that I’m trying to take advantage of.

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An extended recovery, and the flip side of antibiotics

I extended my recovery period after Vancouver a bit, in part due to the effects of the antibiotics I had to take for my elbow.

On the plus side, the clindamycin I was prescribed did work. The redness immediately ceased, the swelling and some of the pain went down, and three days into the 10 day RX the heat around my elbow began to fade. It still hurts to lean on the elbow sometimes because (infection or not) I still have bursitis in that elbow and from experience that hangs around a while. I can still push and pull and use my right arm fine for the most part. At least now I can actually put pressure on the elbow (probably will stick to straight-arm planks for now, though).

However. The minus side is that antibiotics mess with your entire body, and it certainly has messed with mine. Yes, I’ve taken probiotics to counter the mass murder of gut bacteria from the antibiotics, and eaten a mild diet to minimize any c.diff problems.

But the clindamycin still wreaked havoc on my overall organ function and my overall energy. Even with good sleep and diet I’ve felt tired every day (when the infection started, my energy levels and running were okay, so it wasn’t that). I have sizable bags under my eyes, indicating havoc on my kidneys. My sweat smelled like the medication this last few days. I took the last of the RX last night and I’m glad that’s done.

And of course, the pills affected the energy I have to run. Sure, it got fairly hot for Chicago this past week (87 degrees Fahrenheit, 30+ celsius), to the point where I had to cut my last run very short. But even prior easy runs took more effort than usual. The medication certainly dried me out some, and even with plenty of hydration it often felt like I was a bit dried out before and during runs.

Yes, having run a marathon almost certainly is a key factor to this as well. Again, the elbow problem developed a week after the marathon. My body being heavily compromised probably made it a lot easier for bacteria to take hold in my elbow, as well as easier for the subsequent medication to do a number on my still-recovering body. Add in returning to easy running a bit early, and it appears I just need a bit more rest.

Fortunately, I don’t need to begin training officially for the Chicago Marathon in October until mid-June. I will want to be running regularly by then, of course, but it’s not crucial that I be out there training every day right now. My last run Thursday in fact capped 5 straight days of running, so I’m certainly not starting from zero if I take the weekend off and resume on Monday.

I probably need the rest not just coming off the medication, and to acclimate to the incoming summer heat, but also still recovering from the marathon. Two weeks is a standard, and some do more (Kenyans famously take a couple months off after marathons!). Taking three easy weeks is totally fine.

I’m going to drown myself in fruit and fiber this weekend to get the medication out of me and get back to normal, so I can get back to normal running.

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The Hidden Benefits of Antibiotic Treatment

Yesterday, I had to go on antibiotics for the first time in decades thanks to what apparently is cellulitis in my elbow. As usually happens with these sorts of infections, a weird chain of circumstances likely caused the condition.

A slight cut near my elbow in Vancouver wasn’t totally covered up. Though I cleaned it off regularly, I didn’t bandage it due to its awkward position (band aid style bandages would just fall off), not realizing until after the fact that a knuckle style bandage would have held on fine.

However, that little nick healed after a few days and there were no issues.

Saturday I was doing a bodyweight strength workout that at some point called for a standard elbow plank. I go to the floor and I felt like I leaned on a nerve in my right elbow. It didn’t feel good, but I adjusted and finish that + the workout with no issues.

The tip of my elbow was a bit sore a little later that night, like bursitis (which I’ve had before; that just goes away after you stop doing whatever’s causing it), which I didn’t pay much mind.

But then Sunday morning the elbow was real sore. I already knew then it wasn’t normal bursitis, further confirmed that night when my elbow felt rather warm to the touch… a telltale sign of infection. Knowing I cut that elbow last week, I suspected that bacteria got in and, after bumping it on the elbow plank, managed to work its magic.

I took a mild dose of NSAIDs and waited a couple days hoping maybe my decent immune system would maybe work things out on its own. But by the following night, even though the pain had subsided, the elbow was still warm to the touch, the redness was beginning to spread a bit and I realized I needed medical intervention.

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